During an eloquent, emotional eulogy last week, President Obama challenged America to confront its racial problems through action — not just talk and symbolism.
In an address focused on grace, race and religion, the president paid tribute to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight others who were gunned down at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. He praised the grace shown by family members of some of the victims who expressed forgiveness for the man charged in the shootings. And he praised South Carolina’s quick action to remove the Confederate battle flag from its statehouse grounds.
But Obama struck the right tone by saying that Americans must not “settle for symbolic gestures” but follow up “with the hard work of more lasting change.”
“For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present, ” he said. “Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career. …
“Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but … against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.”
The president spoke from the heart with an authenticity that should resonate with people of all races, cultures and backgrounds. He addressed race-based discrimination and bias, gun violence and disaffected young people. He pointed out that Americans too often fail to listen to and care about the histories of others.
We were reminded of some of the worst periods of American history again Monday when there were reports that at least five black churches in southern states and Ohio have had fires in the past week and that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least three were arson-related. Americans of all faiths and backgrounds should challenge themselves, their neighbors and their elected officials to create a new history of lasting change in race relations — and to take the president’s deeply felt call to action to heart.